The best thing about being an Android user is that you can swap out the look of your interface by merely downloading an app. But the worst thing about Android is that when you’re looking for one thing in the Play Store, you’ll encounter way too many other things are not quite what you’re looking for.
That’s what it’s like looking for a different launcher for your Android phone. Launchers are a fun and sometimes productive way to switch things up. The name “launcher” is used to refer to any app that lets you customise your interface.
Some launchers serve to recreate the stock Android experience that Google does not. And others exist to solve a particular problem. For instance, if you’re too distracted from life, maybe you can try a minimalist interface for your smartphone. You can do that with a launcher. Or, if your phone still hasn’t updated to Android 12, a launcher can help you emulate some of the elements of Material You.
The other upside to Android launchers is that you can always use more than one at a time. I used to switch between a launcher for the workday and the nighttime.
Let’s dive into how you can customise your phone using a launcher, and the best ones you should try out.
How to Set Up a New Launcher
It’s easy to swap out your launcher. Once you download the app, you might see the Android interface pop up with a question about whether you want to change defaults. If you feel confident enough to jump into customisation, take the plunge and choose your new launcher as your primary.
You can also take the slow road and set up the launcher on the backend before making it your primary. You can swap between launchers using the multitasking mode on Android.
When you’re ready to commit, you can manually make the changeover. I usually search for “Launcher” in the settings panel and then select the Default home app option. Based on your version of Android, you’ll typically find the option under Apps & Notifications > Default Apps.
Now let’s check out the launchers you should play around with first.
Nova Launcher offers all the marquee features you want out of a third-party launcher, like icon packs, themes, and gestures beyond Android’s defaults. Nova Launcher will also let you back up your home screen layouts, which you’ll want to take advantage of if you’re particular about your app shortcuts (I know I am).
If you’re overwhelmed by the long list of apps in the app drawer, you can use Nova Launcher’s app drawer groups, which let you create custom tabs and folders for organising all the apps you have installed. Nova Launcher will also allow you to assign swipe gestures for custom actions on specific home screen icons or folders.
Nova Launcher is free to start, and you’ll have the customisable interface, icon packs, and backup and restore available for free. If you want access to gestures, custom notification badges, and drawer folders, you can pay $7 for Nova Prime.
Action Launcher is another long-standing favourite because it feels like part of the existing Android interface as soon as you start using it. Action Launcher even positions itself as a better Pixel launcher.
Action Launcher has a ton of great features: support for gestures, icon packs, Google news feed integration, and support for both phones and tablets. It offers a take on some of Android 12’s new interface features, including adaptive icon support and Quicktheme, which emulates Material You’s colour-theming. Action Launcher even has the stacked widgets you get in iOS, which Android does not have natively. (They’re a little finicky to use at first, I will admit.)
Action Launcher is free to use. But if you want that Quicktheme capability, you’ll need to fork over $10 for Action Launcher Plus. The one-time fee will also remove advertising, and most importantly, support the developer.
Smart Launcher 6
When it was Smart Launcher 5, users liked the app’s modern user interface, ambient theming — which matches the interface to your wallpaper — and support for Android 12 features like adaptive icons. It also uses a grid-less widget placement system, which is a nice change from Android’s malleable-but-stringent home screen grid.
Beware that your app drawer will become instantly separated by category once you install it, which can be overwhelming at first. But it’s also a quick way to get organised.
Things have gotten a little shaky since Smart Launcher 5 evolved into Smart Launcher 6 at the beginning of the year, but we still like it — except for the price. Smart Launcher 6 is expensive if you don’t read the fine print. It costs $3/month or $10/annually for most features, or you can pay $22 to unlock every feature available, like a 3D effect on the wallpaper, advanced adaptive icons, and ultra-immersive mode, which hides the navigation bar. There’s also an AMOLED black mode available, which claims to help you save up to 60 per cent of battery on compatible devices (it sure can help!).
Niagara Launcher is beautiful when paired with the right wallpaper — the one I chose for the screenshots is admittedly a little busy! But its overall interface is quite different from the bunch of launchers we just went through.
Niagara Launcher is for the anti-traditionalist, and as a result, it takes a minimalist approach. It’s beneficial if you’re a frequent one-handed user or you’re light on your app usage.
Once you install Niagara Launcher, it will ask you to select your favourite apps for quick access — up to 8 total. If you need to access other apps beyond that, you can scroll through the letter carousel to locate what you need or use the integrated search. But again, Niagara is focused on keeping it super simple, so don’t download this if you’re constantly switching between two dozen apps.
Niagara Launcher is free to use for seven days. After the trial period, you can choose to pay $8/monthly or a one-time fee of $21. You’ll unlock additional features through Niagara Pro, including custom fonts and a plug-and-play music widget.
AIO Launcher is different, and honestly, it’s great for working from home because it prioritises the basics above all else. It starts with the time and the weather, followed by a device monitor that lets you know how much storage you have and how much battery is left. There’s a slot for the timer on top of the area for your most frequently used apps.
And then the list goes on, and on, for about three thumb scrolls. There’s an expansive dialler, which embeds right there in the stream, plus sections for your calendar, Twitter feed, and news feed. If you want, you can go into the settings and add additional widgets, like one that lets you scroll through your Telegram messages and a web traffic widget for monitoring your phone’s connections. By default, the quick settings toggle menu is at the very bottom.
AIO Launcher is definitely for a particular type of Android power user. I’d suggest it if you’re into information density. AIO also offers several tinkerer-friendly features, like Tasker integration and third-party plugins. And if you want to unlock it all, it’s only $6.
I don’t know how Microsoft gets away with making apps that I like using on Android, but this launcher is another one. As you might expect, Microsoft’s Android launcher is based on what the company does best: productivity. It also has an aesthetic that’s sometimes reminiscent of Android’s Holo-themed days.
Microsoft added some features to its Android launcher that not even Google offers on theirs, like changeable icons and the ability to remove their text names from underneath. And if you’re in the Microsoft ecosystem, you can log in with your account to get your Sticky Notes from Windows, Tasks, and email integrated into the left-most screen, where you’d typically find Google’s Discover feed.
The Microsoft Launcher is free. But a word of warning: If you’re planning to use this launcher alongside another one and switch between them, Microsoft will hound you about making it your default.
The Indistractable Launcher is all about removing the graphics and menus that keep you from remaining focused on the task at hand. To say this naked launcher cuts down on the bloat of a user interface would be an understatement. It effectively eradicates the whole Android user experience.
Though this app is technically in its beginning development stages, I like how quickly it pares down the UI so that I’m not tempted to paw at it. It’s also kind of chic when you think about it.
Indistractable Launcher is free to use, but it’s still in beta, so expect to run into bugs. There is a pro version that costs $14. It adds themes and icon pack support, though I’d argue that takes away from the launcher’s goal of keeping you distraction-free.
I used this launcher a few years ago when I needed to switch to something barebones through the daytime hours. Before Launcher claims to help you open your phone 40 per cent less than you do now, and I’ll admit there’s something to it.
When you first set up Before Launcher, it’ll ask you to choose your most-used apps so it can bookmark them on the front page. If you need something else, swipe left to the right-most screen, and there’s the app drawer. And if you need to access notifications, you can swipe to the left to reveal filtered notifications so that only the apps you really need to see can send you alerts.
Before Launcher is free to use. If you end up liking what you’re using, you can upgrade to Before Launcher Pro for $8, which gives you extra goodies like the ability to pin apps and create app folders.